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Was it religious discrimination to give an employee a ‘Christmas Grinch Award’?

In the recent case of Mr S E Toughfar v Search Education Trust, the Employment Tribunal was asked to decide whether a teaching assistant, whose religion was Islam, had been discriminated against because of his faith when he was awarded the “Grinch” trophy during a spoof “Oscar Award” ceremony held by his school. 

Under the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful to discriminate against an individual in the workplace because of their religion or philosophical belief.   

The Equality Act 2010 provides various protections from discrimination related to religion or belief.

This includes protection from less favourable treatment because of religion or belief (direct discrimination) under section 13 of the Equality Act 2010.  

It also includes protection from harassment under section 26 of the Equality Act 2010.  Harassment is defined in the Act as occurring where:

  •  one party engages in unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic; and
  • the conduct has the purpose or effect of violating the other party’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

The Grinch is a character created by children’s author, Dr Seuss, and is green, furry, has a pointed nose and pot belly and, significantly, hates Christmas.    He is the star of the 2018 animated movie “The Grinch” which tells the story of a cynical grump who plots to ruin Christmas for the town of Who-ville.  Enough said. 

Mr Toughfar worked at The Grove School (the School) that was run by Search Education Trust (the Trust).   He was employed as a Learning Support Assistant.   Mr Toughfar’s religion is Islam and he is a practising Muslim. 

The School is multi diverse and Mr Toughfar was one of a number of Muslim staff members.   Although Mr Toughfar did not celebrate Christmas, as part of his role at the School, he prepared the classes for Christmas and got involved in their Christmas activities.

At the end of every school year, the School held internal staff awards which were designed to be a fun celebration for staff.  Categories of awards would change from year to year and previous years included “caffeine addict” and “stationery hoarder”.   Staff would cast their votes anonymously and the winners of each category would be announced at an end of year awards ceremony– dubbed the “Oscar Awards”.    

In December 2022, the School decided to hold its first Christmas “Oscar Awards” ceremony.  Categories were Christmas themed and included The Abominable Snowman, The Hardest Working Elf and The Christmas Grinch.  

Each award had a description. In respect of The Christmas Grinch Award, the description was, “The Christmas Grinch Award – for that member of staff who just won’t get into the Christmas Spirit”.

An error was made in relation to the date voting closed which meant that voting closed a day earlier than staff were informed.     On a counting of votes, Mr Toughfar received the highest number of votes (4) for the Christmas Grinch award.  Two other members of staff received 3 votes each in the category.   The same two staff members received another vote each after the ballot had closed, which would have made them equal contenders to Mr Toughfar for the award, but these were not counted.       

The awards were announced on 16 December 2022 during a ceremony in the School hall. When Mr Toughfar went to collect his miniature Oscar trophy, he didn’t know who the Grinch was.  There was laughter in the hall when he received his award but, according to witnesses, no more so than for other award winners.   Afterwards, Mr Toughfar’s colleague showed him a picture of the Grinch and a Wikipedia description which was when he said he became upset and distressed. 

After the ceremony, Mr Toughfar handed the trophy back and said that being given the award was bullying and discrimination.  Later that evening he emailed the Head and HR manager, stating that he found the award offensive and derogatory and that he should not have been associated with it because he is not of Christian Faith and did not celebrate Christmas.  He also said he did not have an understanding of the Grinch character when he was presented with it, and in his view this was an unkind and inappropriate trophy to give to him.

Following this incident, Mr Toughfar brought a claim of religious discrimination in the Employment Tribunal alleging, amongst other things, that giving him the Christmas Grinch award amounted to direct discrimination because of his religion and harassment related to his religion. 

The Tribunal did not uphold Mr Toughfar’s complaint that the making of the Christmas Grinch Award amounted to direct discrimination because of his religion. 

Mr Toughfar’s argument was that, because he is a Muslim and does not celebrate Christmas (which he said was a religious event for Christians), it was discriminatory for him to receive a reward associated with a character who hated the Christmas period.    He was, he argued, being less favourably treated on the grounds of his religion.  

The Tribunal, however disagreed.   The Tribunal said that Mr Toughfar had not presented evidence to suggest that he was awarded the Christmas Grinch Award because of his religion.   The Tribunal was satisfied that the reason why he received the Christmas Grinch Award was because he had received the highest number of votes at the point the voting closed and there was no evidence that his religion was a factor or consideration in the votes cast for him.

In relation to Mr Toughfar’s complaint that the giving of the award amounted to religion-based harassment, the Tribunal considered first whether there was unwanted conduct.   The Tribunal agreed that Toughfar had been subjected to unwanted conduct by the fact that he was presented with the award which upset him when he learned who the Grinch was.   However, the Tribunal concluded that this unwanted conduct was not related to his religion.  The Tribunal determined that the Awards ceremony was a celebration event to mark the end of the autumn term and had no religious intent, connotation or significance.   The inclusion of “The Christmas Grinch Award” as a category was also not motivated by religion in any way and there was no evidence that religion was a consideration, a factor or the reason for voting for Mr Toughfar in this category.

As the Tribunal concluded the conduct was not related to Mr Toughfar’s religion, it was not required to consider the purpose or effect of the conduct.   

Mr Toughfar’s claims for direct religious discrimination and harassment therefore failed. 

Mr Toughfar said in his grievance that “I have never known a workplace let alone a school who would give a member of staff such an unkind and inappropriate trophy”.  There will be many who agree with this and will have sympathy for Mr Toughfar in this situation.     He collected the trophy amid his colleagues’ gales of laughter, not knowing who the Grinch was, and then only afterwards realised he was being compared to a grumpy character who hates Christmas.  Who can blame him for being upset?      You may even think that, being a multi-faith School, it should have had more sense than to have an award category for “that member of staff who just won’t get into the Christmas Spirit”.

On the other hand there may be many who may think, it was just a light hearted joke, unrelated to religion, which was made as part of a fun end of term event.  That was certainly the Tribunal’s view.   Mr Toughfar was by no means the only one who was made fun of during the mock ceremony.  Who won the Abominable Snowman award, for example?

The case highlights, once again, the proverbial tight rope that employers walk when it comes to dealing with “banter” in the workplace.   Case law is littered with examples of where banter has been said to cross the line into bullying or harassment.   It may sound trite but what one person may regard as a bit of banter can be viewed by another as bullying or offensive behaviour.   As employers, it is important to recognise this and take steps to prevent behaviour crossing the line into what is unacceptable.   This includes having robust harassment and anti-bullying policies in place, training staff on the policies so they are aware what conduct is acceptable in the workplace and what is not and ensuring that your policies are enforced appropriately and consistently.

You can read the full facts and judgement here:

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The information contained in this blog post is provided for guidance and is a snapshot of the law at the time it is written. It is provided for your information only and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice that it specific to your particular circumstances.

The guidance should not be relied upon in any decision making process. It is strongly recommended that you seek advice before taking action.

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